Pre finish dovetail drawer fronts/sides?

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Forum topic by JCantin posted 03-20-2017 01:52 PM 1497 views 0 times favorited 5 replies Add to Favorites Watch
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179 posts in 3553 days

03-20-2017 01:52 PM

Topic tags/keywords: poplar dovetails

I’m building a dresser with QSWO drawer fronts and poplar sides, which will be constructed with half-blind dovetails cut on my PC jig.

The poplar I’ve selected has a good even white tone. I’d like to keep the sides that way while using dye and stain to get the drawer fronts to a Mission brown finish. Fronts and sides will get several coats of poly after assembly.

Should I finish the fronts before cutting the joinery? If not, how can I best mask the joinery on the fronts (pins) during finishing?

My reasons for not staining the sides the same as the front are the usual blotch control issues with poplar plus I like the crisp contrast of the lighter poplar sides.

5 replies so far

View Bill White's profile

Bill White

5067 posts in 4102 days

#1 posted 03-20-2017 02:12 PM

Never tried it that way. I’d stain first, but not so sure about prefinishing.


View bonesbr549's profile


1576 posts in 3208 days

#2 posted 03-20-2017 02:30 PM

I’d do dyes if color is desired. That will not include any binders and prevents issues you are concerned about then you just have the top coat to worry about. TM2CW.

-- Sooner or later Liberals run out of other people's money.

View jbay's profile


2659 posts in 1041 days

#3 posted 03-20-2017 03:21 PM

Just mask them off with masking tape.

View JBrow's profile


1366 posts in 1061 days

#4 posted 03-20-2017 03:49 PM


I have prefinished parts and assemblies (although not dovetail jointed pieces) before glue-up and it can work well. The joinery was already cut and the portions of wood that form the joint are protected from finish with masking tape. Therefore, I believe you can successfully stain the drawer fronts before cutting the dovetails. However, there are some issues that could arise from doing so.

The first issue is the post-stain handling of the drawer front; from cutting the dovetails and then fitting the front with the sides of the pre-stained fronts could damage the stained surface. The more drawers, the more likely that at least one will incur some damage. Repairing damage stain could be fairly easy or more difficult depending on the nature of any damage.

The second reason is that the stained surface between the sockets will not hold glue very well. But then this is a long to end grain glue surface, which would not form a very strong glue bond anyway. Additionally the fresh wood exposed in the front sockets would form plenty of glue surface and if the joints are tight, the little bit of stained drawer front surface within the joint would not matter much.

The third issue may a little more difficult to mitigate. Once the stained drawer and sides are glued, the joint may not be flush, even after following painstaking glue-up procedures. Therefore flushing up the dovetail joint could lead to some stain being removed from the end grain of the drawer front. I do not know how well the stain would be retained in the end grain after some light sanding. However, enough stain may be retained that this is not an issue; I just do not know. However, the end grain of a piece of scrap poplar could be stained and then sanded after the stain has cured. This should reveal the likely results after flushing up the pre-stained drawer front to side joints.

The alternative would be to cut the dovetails and dry assemble the drawers. A light pencil or scribe mark could be drawn on the inside drawer front where the side meets the front. Then the drawer could be dissembled and the masking tape applied to the scribed line to protect the joint. Once masked off, the drawer front could be stained and then drawer box assembled. This alterative only addresses the first two issues; the flush-up issue could still be a problem.

A definitive answer to the flush-up issue can be had if you pre-stain a piece of scrape poplar. Then cut the dovetail joint on the pre-stained scrap along with another piece of scrap that represents the drawer side. The test pieces could be glued together and the joint flushed up. If the stained end looks a little dull compared to the rest of the stained piece, applying a coat or two of the top coat finish may be required to know exactly how the finished drawer box will look. I am sure some stain would be removed from the end grain, but perhaps not enough to matter after the top coat finish is applied.

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3645 posts in 731 days

#5 posted 03-20-2017 05:58 PM

I assume you want the poplar tails to stay their natural color too. If that’s the case, I don’t see any easy way to mask it after assembly. I would do the milling first and stain before glue-up to avoid damaging the stained surface.

You can put the stain on such that the sockets stay pretty much dry and easy to glue.

-- Half of what we read or hear about finishing is right. We just don’t know which half! — Bob Flexner

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